Observe and Report

(2009) Jody Hill.
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J.Hoberman, the critiquellisimo, writes that actor Seth Rogen plays main character Ronnie Barnhardt "with admirable disregard for audience empathy.“ It has taken eight years for the post-9/11 psychic effect on the average Joe to play out most expressively in mainstream movies. Assuredly, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour did it in 2002, but that was firstly a New York movie. Observe and Report takes place in Ex Urbania, U.S.A. Like any great work of art about war, the war is not mentioned or seen (like The Deer Hunter Pittsburgh sequences, and Hemingway’s quiet girthy tale of fishing on "Big River"). Ronnie is a gullible social neophyte who has latched upon an expectation of himself based on the boosterism of honor and duty but finds that the world doles out otherwise. Observe And Report.jpgCompounded by bipolar disorder, absent father, and a mother who recovers alcoholism by pounding beers all day and can still be fine - Ronnie is ripe to crack. He believes doubtlessly in the sincerity of his night out with Brandi, the cosmetics-counter skank (Anna Faris with a sly wink-wink performance), and it can be said that the conception scene in Knocked Up is as equally maladjusted a conjugal interaction as Ronnie and Brandi’s mawkish connubials. Seth Rogen is becoming poster boy for the awkward, gross hook-up to which most people can relate but suppress into murky memory. In Ronnie’s naively ill mind, it was a night of passion. He is inspired by the suddenly evolved camaraderie with Dennis, his Chicano recidivist co-security guard, and together they lay the punishing rod to parking-lot skateboarders. Is Ronnie really ignorant? An idealist victim?
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He is true to himself to the point of vacating his identity - the “real Ronnie” get-up for his date with Brandi is an elegantly sub-goombah goldchain ensemble, as is the bicameral mind costume of Ronnie’s climactic alias Gil Jacobson, with Kangold cap and fuddy-dud windbreaker. Each of these outfits are small masterful techniques of characterization, and they fool no one but Ronnie. Society has corrupted the young man - his glorification of justice through violence targets the current conservative enemies via Islamofascism & Illegal Immigration: Arabs & Latinos. He is convinced he passes his police psychological evaluation with flying colors by disclosing his dream of wielding "the biggest motherfucking shotgun you've ever seen" and blowing away the black cloud of "cancer and pus" that terrorizes Playground Earth (sounding alot like the smoke monster on Lost). Ronnie's soliloquies are infused with the cliched grandiose language of religion and New Ague self-help and 1980s soldier-of-fortune style pulp paperbacks: absurd, lyrical, complex sound collages for the new century. Like Dennis says, his anti-buddy, "Sometimes I drink from volcanoes."

Are we to be happy for Ronnie regaining his job, achieving the adoration of Nell - the more steady-headed gal, the scarred but smiling coffee-counter sweetheart (she recognizes her own reformed darkness in Ronnie), and winning approbation for gunning down the puddy-wang Mall Flasher? It is a Hollywood ending, and though Ronnie’s goals from the beginning are met, they accompany a severe harrowing of hell that most moviemakers relent to include (an exception being the Coen Bros, and Ronnie invokes John Turturro’s “The Schmatte” from Miller's Crossing in his mock supplication, "Look in your heart!" before thrashing his gangsta accosters led by picaresquely vulgar Danny McBride). Ronnie thinks he does inscrutable good, executing moral authority to the cybergogic Queen soundtrack of Flash Gordon, but his comeuppance is betrayal and psychotropic malfunction. In the end, the uppity news anchor finally gets Ronnie’s professional title correct, when in the beginning, to the tune of The Band’s jangly-wangly “Masterpiece,” not even Ronnie has it right.

The VHS Stack - Maniac Cop

(1988) William Lustig.

Maniac Cop (1988)Larry Cohen, the screenwriter of Maniac Cop and a frequent director of his own glib lurid scripts, has the ideal career - cranking out semi-artful, narratively whipcracked, socially conscious, B-movie genre pictures and TV shows, with a positivity of creative control, attracting a random stock of solid C-list actors (but A-list in the grindhouse), with minimal sacrifice to artistic code. Maniac Cop is a hulking uniformed police officer in the old-timey tunic and belt who stalks the empty, sinister late-80s Manhattan streets, killing innocent civilians with a saber drawn from his nightstick. The Larry Cohen punchline antics begin when a young girl flees muggers (down Prince Street, right outside the old Rocks In Yer Head record shop), and the girl encounters a cop but the cop senselessly murders her in Washington Square Park as the muggers hide and watch. After a spree of similar attacks on everyday citizens, the public no longer trusts the men in blue, and old ladies are soon blowing away traffic officers. Maniac Cop causes social distortion in his vengeance against the City. Instead of directly attacking the mayor & police commissioner (who eventually get thrashed by the saber) he starts at the pedestrian level, the most trustworthy of urban caste. A welcome new twist in the vigilante movie, a genre that works well in reference to its own immediate time and place. That is why The Brave One sucks, and Observe & Report is inspired.

The Limits of Control

(2009) Jim Jarmusch.

The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch


Jim Jarmusch is not a great moviemaker because of the way Ideas are postulated, but because of the craftsmanship of their scenarios. This movie is one lumbering scenario in the mask of an Idea, spiraling into tedium in its patterns and repetitions. The variation and routine is complexly laid out to little effect. The deliberately fuzzy aims become clear in the student-film level intellect and cheaply-wowed mystic spareness of the sequences and dialogue. Isaach De Bankole is a compelling, stone-chiseled countenance and infuses it with a delicate, spartan life, but the movie hardly supports him. The references to art, film, literature are all thrown bones with no marrow, footnotes of the moviemaker's imagination – as if the movie should be left in the bathroom stack for hunched readers to skim like a book of famous quotes. The dialogue is collectively trite and quips about hallucinogenic drugs and molecular science limply suck those subjects of any suggestiveness. It feels as if one is being whispered repeatedly, tortuously like MK-Ultra, what one already knows, desecrating the richness of experience, and so, among other things, the cinematography fails to capture the audiences’ awareness of the Spanish environs (see the opening five minutes of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona). The climax showdown with typical asshole American epitomizes the meek lefty's imaginary enemy. Is Jarmusch trying to make a movie from the perspective of an ill-informed Western European conspiracy theorist? The agent of the secret group for whom Lone Man kills speaks French to him, translated into English by a gold-chained oaf. Do the rest of the characters represent Euro-intelligentsia clich├ęs? If so, the movie is natural to the Jarmusch canon, but it would then follow that Jim's grave nods to the imagination should be deliberately trivial, which it cannot be said they are, and in effect one is embarrassed for them.

The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch, French guysBill Murray, the character called American, as always with all material whether Rodney Dangerfield or Shakespeare, is superbly in tune and makes the most with least. He tosses his toupee atop the decorative skull on his desk, and shares a quick stare with his own death-head that is more abundant with personality than most of the whole movie, and the excessive f-bombs are a welcome ring. Bill’s pedigree in sketch comedy - to work in context out of context - serves the movie’s groove that is otherwise mostly missed. Gael’s gaucho getup is enviably gritty and it seems John Hurt walks out of an Evelyn Waugh novel before hurrying back in, but, overall, a silly mod pop band from the late 60s could have taken this script and made it into a counterculture hit, just substitute the band for the Lone Man. The Limits Of Control puts Jarmusch in jeopardy of the Tarantino hero-worship syndrome – that obsessed fandom will let the moviemaker get away with any movie, and so the editing process in later work degenerates.

The theme of emptiness and dream-logic mystery peaked with 80s Cold War nuclear brinksmanship. The standards are different today. Good art about “nothing” can be engaging (like Naked & Seinfeld), but Limits seems to be a shoddy assemblage of discarded jots from the truly profound movies upon which Jim's rep is based - Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Stranger Than Paradise etc. Among the digital age of information mega-scope (whether the info true or false), the smoky beatnik style of incessantly flip cultural references seems more dorky than cool. Jim knows this - he spoke sardonically and rakishly about transcendent socio-aesthetic paradigms in the Q&A after a screening of The Limits Of Control at Lincoln Center on April 30.

*For a more relevant and resonant experience of how alienation, imagination and authority mix a volatile cocktail, see Observe & Report.